“If We Can’t Communicate Our Pain, Who’s Going to Do It?”
By Aja Rose Anderson
Senior, School of International Service
Left to right: Sr Rabbi Bruce Lustig of Washington Hebrew Congregation, Derrick Goldman of Georgetown University, Nora Bustany of the Washington Post, Dr Akbar Ahmed, and Ari Roth of Theater J
Leon Harris of Channel 4 News, Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Mahmud Ali Durrani, and Dr. Asiananda Devasia of the Shri Aurobindo Center for Human Unity
Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington, DC has proved yet again that the “ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” On a plane ride back from an interfaith dialogue in Kansas, his new play, Noor, came to life.
A reading of Noor, hailed as a “paean of religious tolerance“ by the Washington Post, premiered November 19th and 20th at the Kazten Arts Center at American University in Washington, DC. The event was hosted by Dean Louis Goodman of the School of International Service. The play, sponsored by Theater J, was directed by Shirley Serotski, and followed by a panel discussion moderated by the artistic director, Ari Roth.
Noor tells the story of three brothers struggling to rescue their sister, who has been kidnapped during Ramadan. Purposely ambiguous in its setting, Noor is intended to take place anywhere in the contemporary Muslim world, where families are wrestling with tragedy, tradition, and transformations within their homes and communities. As Ahmad writes in the play’s introduction “the crisis of one family, its dilemmas and discussions, is the crisis of the world.”
Dr. Akbar Ahmed and his daughter, Nafees Ahmed, are interviewed by Voice of America
Each brother represents a different interpretation within Islam: the conservative Daoud, a doctor; the modernist Ali, a lawyer; and the mystic Abdullah, a teacher. In the aftermath of their sister’s abduction, the brothers try to understand the nature of their situation within their varied perspectives, and engage in fervent dialogue, alternately passionate, humorous, and enlightening. The recurring worry, espoused by Noor’s Auntie Fatima and Daoud, is the effect of her abduction on the honor of the family. Auntie Fatima is so convinced by rumors in the bazaar that she calls off Noor’s engagement to her son, even after reminding the brothers that she loves Noor like a daughter. After failing to conceal the terrible news from their father, each man takes action in a unique way. Ali tackles the bureaucracy, visiting the Ministry of Justice. Abdullah seeks the advice of his Sufi sheik. Daoud’s deeds, however, are wreathed in shadow. The firebrand of the family, Daoud speaks constantly of the religious imperative to act, citing an omnipotent God who charges His followers to seize the moment. Ironically, despite Daoud’s perpetual call for action, the brothers spend the first act arguing with each other, rather than helping their sister.
The play is a creative extrapolation of knowledge gleaned on an international trip Ahmed and a group of young Americans took in 2006. In the book that resulted from the trip, as well as in the play, Ahmed brings his experience in the field as an officer in charge of large parts of Pakistan; therefore the discussion is based both in theory and reality. The scholar and his team discovered through countless interviews three distinct voices within Islam: mystic, modernist, and conservative. Within each group, Muslims are striving to make sense of their rapidly globalizing world whether through education, trusting the system, or invoking the wrath of God here on earth. Each is confused by the other’s interpretation of Islam, and unfortunately for the religion as a whole the perspective that sells the most news is the brand of conservatism espoused by the Daouds of the world. What is missing from television soundbytes is the character development of Daoud. At both readings, the American audience expressed concern and worry for Daoud, signaling an attachment to a man who American media would brand a fundamentalist. But as Daoud expresses to his brother Abdullah, he is human like anyone else. In our humanness, in times of trial and despair we are given a choice: to lash out, or to be better than human, and thus make a difference.
Monday’s reading was followed by a dynamic discussion, including the author, Akbar Ahmed; Matt Frei of BBC World America; Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Mahmud Ali Durrani; Andy Shallal, founder of the Peace Café; and Tony Blankley of the Washington Times. A conversation about the play and its major themes, followed by a question and answer session, elicited laughter and applause from the audience. It was clear from comments and questions that by the end of the reading, the audience was anxious about the fate of the ardent Daoud. Tony Blankey expressed his sadness that moderation failed and radicalism won. “The argument of violence seems to win the day.” Andy Shallal, turning to Blankley, respectfully disagreed. “The radical dies! He lost! It’s over!” Shallal went on to express his feeling that Islam is indeed, as Daoud felt, under attack. He added, rather uncomfortably, that he did not feel “Muslims have matured enough to air our dirty laundry.” Akbar Ahmed disagreed. “The time has come to start airing dirty laundry. If we can’t communicate our pain, who’s going to do it? It is our duty to communicate. The time for political correctness is over.” Shallal seemed to convey not only his discomfort, but the discomfort of many in the audience who yearned for a clear, optimistic ending. This, according to Ahmed, was his exact intention. “If the play serves the purpose of making you uncomfortable, then I have succeeded,” he explained.
Matt Frei, who for years has lived and worked in the Middle East, noted that the discussion catalyzed by the play had to be heard, and that “only a Muslim could have written Noor. Otherwise, it would have been misunderstood.” Nasim Ansari, a Kalamazoo County Commissioner, drove 10 hours to see Monday’s reading. “It was worth every mile,” he commented. “It is an honor to be here.”
Tuesday’s panel included Dr Ahmed and Ari Roth, Nora Bustany of the Washington Post, Senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig of Washington Hebrew Congregation, and Derrick Goldman, the chair of the theater department at Georgetown University. Rabbi Lustig commented that the play’s “nakedness was absolutely necessary. There was nothing in the dialogue that was inaccurate or unacceptable. The play’s brilliance is in its context; there are so many ways to see the dichotomy of light and darkness, free will and faith in action. This family’s story could happen to anyone — it’s about all of us.” Additionally, Rabbi Lustig offered to host a staged reading of Noor in February at the Washington Hebrew Congregation Synagogue.
Nora Bustany noted that “religion is the only space that intractable injustice can be dealt with.” When audience members expressed the opinion that the play was unfinished, and desired a third act, Derrick Goldman commented, “Any good play should make you want the next act.” Bustany also commented that she was disappointed that the audience does not learn Noor’s opinion until the very end. An audience member agreed, but felt the opinion was weak, and the play would be better without a tangible Noor character. “I feel cheated by not having anything but a symbolic Noor,” she said. Nafees Ahmed, the daughter of the playwright, portrayed Noor in the play. As a young Pakistani-American student, she was an interesting contrast to the older, professional cast. After an hour and a half of dialogue during which Noor’s character is developed, the viewer does feel let down when she is physically present on stage a brief fifteen minutes.
Both evenings the auditorium was packed. Monday’s reading was honored with such notables as Leon Harris of Channel 4 News, the American University President Cornelius M. Kerwin, and Judith Latham of Voice of America. Like Nasim Ansari, other people traveled many miles to be part of the American University premier. Kell Kerns, whose beautiful film “Rumi Returning” was shown December 1st at the Santa Fe Film Festival, came all the way from Arizona. Jackie Fogg, who recently launched a revolutionary syllabus on Islam with the Jones Knowledge Group, traveled from Colorado. There was a palpable excitement in the air, and a feeling of urgency to have questions and concerns addressed. The play opened up a forum for people to come together and deconstruct the perspective of the playwright, and members of the audience clamored to be heard. What was wonderful about the panels was the variation of political and religious position from one speaker to the next. The conversation on stage mirrored the recurring theme of Ahmed’s popular class “Clash or Dialogue of Civilizations?” Despite disagreements among the panelists, the discussion remained jovial, proving that colloquy trumps contention.
The play is provocative, reflecting the reality of challenging relationships between the contemporary family and the world, and the individual and God. It is both the story of a family’s quest to reclaim their stolen daughter, and the effort to rediscover God’s light in their lives. On one level the woman Noor had been taken from the family on stage, but figuratively God’s light was missing from the household as well. Many Muslims today feel forsaken; the ascendance of the West in politics and economics has turned their homes into the last frontier. Now in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, with a physical American presence in the country, their homes do not feel safe. Opportunists use the lack of security for political and economic gain, kidnapping children for ransom or worse. As a student of Dr Ahmed’s, a young American woman, and a scholar of Islam, the play affected me professionally, emotionally, and intellectually. I felt a profound sense of pride for my professor, for our team who have spent so many hours reading, researching, and editing to refine the script, and for the honor of being involved in this significant work. I sat on the edge of my seat both evenings, simultaneously taking notes, photos, and gasping with surprise at the powerful delivery of the dialogue. I noted key points about Islam cleverly cloaked in the banter among brothers. The characters were entangled in a web of political, economic, and religious restraints, infinitely limited by the social constructions in which they put such trust. Noor made the audience uncomfortable because it breathed life into previously two-dimensional archetypes who were people very much like us, sitting with fingers crossed, waiting, hoping, and praying for the return of a beloved.
Noor concludes with a beautiful recitation of Rumi. This left the audience feeling hopeful. Out beyond our human proclivity to return hurt for hurt, there is a forum for us to come together and transcend our differences. Noor shows us the way.